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The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India
By James Astill (Wisden Sports Writing/Bloomsbury India)
Pages: 290. Price: 399. Illustrated.
Reviewed by Gulu Ezekiel
The Economist South Asia bureau chief in New Delhi from 2007 to 2010, James Astill bring to this thoroughly enjoyable book two great strengths—a passionate love for cricket in all forms (well, almost!) from ‘gully cricket to international cricket and a delightful turn of phrase which both amuses and enlightens. His indefatigable quest to record as many voices (close to fifty) on Indian cricket as is physically possible in a book this size is awe-inspiring.
I would not go so far as to use the cliché beloved of reviewers usually reserved for crime/spy thrillers—unputdownable-- but I would definitely classify it as a page turner. Especially for those who care for and understand Indian cricket.
Yes, India can boast of the largest mass audience for cricket on the planet, a kind of tyranny of numbers. And yes, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has made India an irresistible honey pot for the world’s cricketers, past and present. But in the most fascinating encounter of the book, the late legendary ‘Tiger’ Pataudi a few months before his passing tells Astill: “There’s a great passion for cricket in this country, but little knowledge…there’s plenty of enthusiasm, but most people haven’t got a clue.”
Astill’s original idea was to focus solely on the IPL launched in 2008 which for better or for worse has in such a short span irrevocably changed the eco-system of the game both in India and globally. He then decided to broaden his scope to bring in various facets of Indian cricket with the thread of the IPL running through the book though it is only in the latter half that he devotes three full chapters to its ups and downs. The IPL remains, as the author puts it, the “leitmotif” of this book.
Astill’s assessments of Indian society uses cricket as a prism “…because, in cricket, a lot of India is revealed.” Very true.
The extensive introduction to the book is solely for the Indian market and helps bring it up to date with the corruption scandal that hit the league like a cloudburst back in June and which has put plunged the IPL and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) into a major crisis.
Astill gamely tries to mask his distaste for the IPL, though not always successfully. He pulls no punches though when dealing with the head honchos of the BCCI. Their greed and narrow vision gets short shrift.
One has to turn to Pataudi again, this time on the IPL: “Too noisy...it isn’t even very good. I don’t think it’s ever going to produce great cricket. It’s what we call a tamasha…” Touche!
There is an emotional parting shot from the once-and-forever tiger of Indian cricket which brought a tear to my eye. But if you want to have a good laugh you must turn to Astill’s chats with IPL franchise owners Vijay Mallya and Preity Zinta. The author records these and many other interviews verbatim leaving the readers to make their own judgments. It is a smart technique.
Occasionally he slips in a telling comment. On Lalit Modi: “Even by rich Indian standards, Modi could be very rude.” He also refers to the creator of the IPL as the “Icarus of corporate India”, surely a much more apt sobriquet for the megalomaniac Modi then the abhorrent “Moses of Cricket” which had previously been bestowed upon him by an ex- Indian cricketer.
The remarkable confluence of Sachin Tendulkar’s international debut in 1989, the advent of satellite TV in 1990 and the opening of India’s economy by the--then Finance Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh the very next year was like the lining up of the planets. All these seemingly unrelated landmarks combined to make India the billion dollar baby of world cricket.
But much as I enjoyed the book, there is a nagging feeling that Astill has in places spread himself too thin. The brief history of Indian cricket at the start of the book is ground well covered by so many authors in the past. The chapters on the role of caste in Indian cricket and the apparent divided loyalties of Indian Muslims when it comes to matches against Pakistan are sensitive topics which however tend to meander. There is also a touch of Slumdog Millionaire/poverty porn to his travels through the Dharavi slums of Mumbai. A delightful aspect of the book is the research that has gone into digging out some wonderful photos. There is a rare one of Sadu Shinde (father-in-law of Sharad Pawar whose meeting Astill has masterly portrayed in a chapter devoted to the strongman of Indian politics and cricket). And the photo of the notorious ‘Vizzy’ being bowled on the 1936 tour of England is both hilarious and pathetic.
Astill’s themes broadly are thus—there is a vast untapped field of talent in India’s slums and villages (possibly); the politicians who run Indian cricket “are mainly concerned to perpetuate their power...the good of Indian cricket is not their chief priority” (spot on) and finally, the IPL has already wrought havoc on the international game and has the potential to wreck it (sad, but true).
The chief irritant is the mistakes that have crept in. I counted half a dozen factual errors or typos. There could be more. Publishers appear shy of employing fact checkers.
Perhaps this is hair-splitting. The book is a winner.
--The review originally appeared in Asian Age daily.